Thursday 27 June 2013

Better Storytelling Part One

We all have an innate sense of what makes a good story. Even as children we can discern between what’s interesting, what’s interesting to just us, and what isn’t interesting at all. If a kid comes home and you ask him what happened at school today, nine times out of ten the answer will be, “Nothing.”

But sometimes the answer will be, “Charlie brought his pet tarantula to class and it got out of its cage and Mr Sellers screamed and jumped on the table and then he lost his balance and fell out of the window and broke his arm so now we have to have Miss Reedy for the rest of term.”

My point being not only that kids don’t seem to speak with any punctuation, but also that a kid knows when he’s got something to tell you.  We all do. We all have the urge to find someone with whom to share a story when something remarkable happens.

That internal barometer, however, can get buried under a lot of doubts and insecurities when the story you’re telling isn’t something you’ve observed for real but instead is something you’ve made up.

When you experience a story for yourself and make a judgement that it’s interesting to you, then it becomes a lot easier to confidently pass the story on to others in the belief that they too will find it of interest.

A story that comes out of your imagination doesn’t have quite the same seal of approval (even though that seal of approval comes from you).

So we try to find other ways to makes sure it has the qualities of a good story. And usually the first place we start is the quality of the writing.

But at its heart a story has to have something more than good writing. Learning good grammar and narrative techniques to improve the flow and pace will obviously be beneficial, but that in itself will not make what’s happening on the page more interesting.

In order to make the adventures of Timmy Timkins appeal to the reader, his hopes and dreams need to be worth reaching for.

If a character’s goals come down to basic human desires (love, success, happiness etc.) then you can be fairly sure people won’t question the motivation behind all the shenanigans. Some motivations are easier to accept than others. The clearer and stronger the need of the character, the easier it will be to get the reader on board.

If Timmy wants to be the first to the top of a mountain, then we all know people do this sort of thing and are celebrated for it. But if you’re going to write a whole novel about it, leaving it just as a personal desire to climb tall things isn’t going to be very captivating.

Readers will accept it, but will they care?

The further you get from the basic human desires (sex, money, status etc.), the fewer people will automatically just click with your character’s goals. If he wants the person he loves to love him back, then most people will be able to connect with that feeling. If he wants to hang-glide non-stop around the equator, a lot of people are going to be like, “Okay, well good luck with that.”

That doesn’t mean you should only write about the basic human desires (having babies, collecting shiny objects, tweeting incessantly etc.), it means you should evaluate what it is your character wants to do and work out why they want to do it. If it isn’t the sort of thing that would feature in most people’s top ten basic human desires (eating chocolate, eating cake, eating chocolate cake etc.) then it’s the writer’s job to convince readers otherwise.

And in most case you will find the underlying reasons are indeed things we can all relate to.

Timmy wants to climb the mountain. Why? Just to say he did it? That might be what he claims, but do you believe that’s all there is to it? It’s certainly an impressive achievement, but who is he trying to impress? Will he get to the top, climb back down and then quietly get on with his life? What’s driving him to want to be the centre of attention?

Sure, we all want to be admired and thought of as cool, but few of us run up a mountain and shout, “Look at me!”

Why does he want to do it? Who is he trying to impress? What is his relationship with doing dangerous things? Once you dig a bit deeper hopefully you’ll find more universal reasons for his behaviour that readers will relate to.

These things don’t need to be spelled out immediately. In fact it can often be more rewarding to start with a character seeming to be driven by basic human desires (sniffing marker pens, popping bubble wrap, obsessing about One Direction etc.) and to gradually discover a deeper, more personal reason.

Knowing what drives a character and how important it is to them is the sign of a story that has potential to be important to lots of other people too.
Part two of this series will look at Competition. A good story has more than one character because it’s only when we compare ourselves to others that we see the best and worst in ourselves.
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The reason someone says they want something isn't always the real driving force. That's where the basic human drives and ambitious can be interwoven with an interesting motivation.

Vanessa Morgan said...

So true. Sometimes novels with bad grammar can be very touching and entertaining and it's usually because you can identify with the characters.

Beverly Diehl said...

DC Fontana (Star Trek) spoke to my writers' group many years ago, and she kept repeating, "A story is about a character with a problem," which has stuck with me every since.

In your example of Timmy and the mountain, it's not enough that he wants to climb the mountain, and climbing mountains is hard. It's that he has some kind of inner motivation, some PROBLEM that he believes will be resolved by climbing that mountain, some bad thing that will happen to him, internally as well as externally, if he doesn't get up there. We might think that climbing mountains, hang-gliding around the equator, or collecting stamps is not something we ourselves would ever want to do, but if we understand why it is so important to the character, then we can get drawn in to whether it gets accomplished.

mooderino said...

@Vanessa - the story and the writing can work together (hopefully) but they're also separate elements that require different things to work properly.

@Beverly - the simple task is never the whole story but often the tales are so familiar the reader just fills in the blanks for themselves. It's easy to consume but not very satisfying.

Kimberly said...

This is a great post - and you're right, there is so much to know about writing other than the punctuation and grammar. Love your example of kids coming home saying nothing happened and then one day something does - it's so true and it makes the point very well. :)

dolorah said...

I start with basic motivation, then add in some tension and obstacles. Tomorrows post sounds interesting too.


Rachna Chhabria said...

True, starting with the character's motivation that reflects a basic human desire will echo with readers.

Margo Berendsen said...

Sniffing markers and popping bubble wrap :-) Loved the tarantula story, too. Such a good point about how we (well, at least some of us) know when we have a good story share from life.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I like how you anchored this to basic human desires. I think I do that in my writing but I'm going to double check. Great post.

Unknown said...

I just discovered your blog and love, love, love it! Here are my thoughts on writing:

I'd love to know what you think!


Unknown said...

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close did some interesting things with grammar and punctuation but it really worked to develop the character. Good article, as always-- such helpful stuff.

mooderino said...

@Kimberly - thanks.

@Donna - next post will be on Monday (need time to write it)

@Rachna - and there are plenty of basic human desires to choose from.

@Margo - much more instinctive in our judgements when it's a real story.

@Mike - cheers.

@Bambi - thanks. I'll check it out.

@Julie - cheers

Ghadeer said...

Your tips are always useful. Thanks for making me a better writer (hopefully!)

mooderino said...

@Ghadeer - thanks, glad to be of use (hopefully).

LD Masterson said...

I think the basic underlying question for a reader is "Why should I care?" Understanding why a character is doing whatever they're doing goes a long way to answering that question.

Unknown said...

The valuable takeaway from this post is in your comment that pretty much all goals -- even climbing a mountain -- tie back somewhere to those basic human emotions ... what does Timmy REALLY get if he makes it to the top? Therein lies a tale!

Thanks for a fun read.

mooderino said...

@LD - very true.

@Mary - you're very welcome.

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